Candles, flowers and fond memories helped students of Howard County teacher Laura Wallen honor her memory Thursday night during a candlelight vigil outside Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel.
A gathering of a few hundred students, parents and school staff quietly gathered around 7:30 p.m. outside the middle school's front doors, where a large poster board declared, "We love you, Ms. Wallen," and was covered with pictures, hearts and emotional messages to the former middle school teacher.
Wallen, a 31-year-old social studies teacher at Wilde Lake High School, was found dead Wednesday in a shallow grave in a secluded field in Damascus, Montgomery County police said.
She was shot in the back of the head, according to autopsy findings released Thursday night. Her boyfriend, Tyler Tessier — who police say was a suspect early in the investigation — is charged with first-degree murder in her death.
Tessier was denied bond Thursday afternoon in Rockville District Court.
Students took turns placing and lighting white tealight candles along the brick windowsills, the flames flickering off their faces. Tears were shed and stories were shared, and many students said they would never forget the beloved teacher.
Atholton High School seniors Brian Mouafo, Brittany Dunsmore and Tristan Rhodovi, all 17, said they decided to organize the vigil to remember Wallen as the "upbeat, friendly" teacher she was inside and outside the classroom.
Wallen taught the three students history when they were in seventh grade at Murray Hill Middle.
"We really loved her as a teacher," Brian said. "We wanted to do something small, like getting flowers and lighting candles at the school where she taught us. She wanted you to be involved and happy all the time; she didn't want you to be sad or left out or alone."
Brittany said Wallen was "the most positive person" every day.
"She was a friend first, teacher second," she said. "She meant the world to me and she really established a lot of emotional connections with everyone that made them comfortable to be around her."
Nearby, 15-year-old Julia Zhang, a junior at Reservoir High, wiped tears away while listening to other students share their memories of Wallen. Julia said Wallen, who also taught her at Murray Hill Middle, was supportive when Julia was having a bad day.
"For me, personally, she helped me through some tough times," Julia said. "Even after I graduated, she didn't forget about me. She still sent me emails and asked if I was OK."
Wallen was involved in the middle school's drama program, said Faith Chisholm, a 17-year-old senior at Atholton High. Faith and her friend, Shelby Lechner, a 15-year-old sophomore at Atholton, wore shirts from previous middle school productions, "Aladdin" and "Into the Woods."
Faith said Wallen "made every person feel special," even going as far as making a necklace as a gift for Faith's bat mitzvah.
"She loved to make jewelry. We had a craft club with her," Faith said. "She was always involved in our lives. It wasn't just a teacher relationship; she cared about you as a person outside of school."
"I never had her as a teacher," Shelby added, "but she always texted me before my sports competitions to say, 'Good luck.' "
Kathy Hersey, the band teacher at Murray Hill Middle, said she had worked with Wallen since Wallen started teaching.
"When she left here, she told the principal, 'I want to come back and help Kathy with drama,'" Hersey said. "This would've been her fifth year. Teaching was her life. She was born to be a teacher. She did everything she could for kids."
Wallen, who was four months pregnant, was reported missing Sept. 5 after escalating concerns from her family, and missing the first day of school in Howard County Sept. 6 — a day her father, Mark Wallen, said Monday she was preparing for with excitement.
A few hours before Thursday's vigil, Wilde Lake principal Rick Wilson said students returned to the high school that morning, wearing black and organizing a moment of silence between classes. There was "a huge range of emotions" among staff and students throughout the day, he said.
Wilson said students also spontaneously sang "Amazing Grace" in honor of Wallen.
"I have to give a personal message to our students and let them know how proud I am," Wilson, said teary-eyed Thursday afternoon. "They helped us as adults really kind of find a small measure of peace in the news that we learned about late yesterday. Our students are amazingly resilient. They gave us hope when we felt helpless when we didn't know what was going on."
Wilson said Wallen was a talented teacher who looked beyond grades and test scores. She had the ability to connect with her students, he said, and was a teacher many students will never forget.
"She touched so many people in 31 short years," he said. "She volunteered to give up lots of time. She's a very special person."
The Howard County school system's crisis team met with "quite a few students" Thursday, Wilson said, and the crisis team will continue supporting students, staff and faculty as long as they're needed.
"[Students] are already taking their grief and trying to move it in a positive direction in remembrance of Laura," Wilson said. "Laura had that impact that we can't just say, 'Let's get on to business.' The goal is normalcy, but it's going to be awhile before it really is normal here."
Wilson said he's been in touch with the Wallen family and is unaware of any funeral arrangements as of Thursday.
Because of Wallen's death, the school system announced Murray Hill Middle School postponed tonight's back-to-school night to Thursday, Sept. 28 at 6:30 p.m. All after-school activities for Wilde Lake High were also canceled Thursday.
A GoFundMe page for the Wallen family was started Wednesday with a goal of raising $10,000 for the family and funeral costs. The campaign has garnered donations from 35 people since its creation and raised more than $850 as of Thursday evening.
"Ms. Wallen, thank you for everything," the GoFundMe page states. "I can only hope and pray that we are able to give back to you even a fraction of what you gave to us."
Jennifer Pollitt Hill, the executive director of HopeWorks of Howard County, said Thursday that Wallen's death is "tragic" and an "unfortunate reminder" of the many women who are killed by someone they love and trust.
Formerly called the Domestic Violence Center, HopesWorks provides services to victims of sexual and domestic violence and their families, such as shelter, counseling, advocacy and legal services. The HopeWorks community engagement department also speaks to groups in the area, whether it's a faith-based community, civic group or school environment.
"Unfortunately, we find that of the women who have been murdered, 55 percent of those women have been murdered by an intimate partner," Hill said. "It's always a tragedy and we hope that as the family begins to heal that it's also an opportunity as a community to discuss, 'How do we prevent this kind of violence in the first place?' "
Very few intimate partner-related deaths have been reported in Howard County, Hill said; however, last year, HopeWorks assisted more than 3,500 people who were impacted by this violence in the county. Their goal is to engage people before the violence results in a homicide, she said.